AURORA, Colo. (Reuters) - Thousands of Denver-area residents made a sunset pilgrimage to a sprawling park on Sunday to honor the 12 who died and the scores more wounded when a gunman opened fire early Friday in a crowded midnight movie.
As darkness fell over Aurora, the red neon glow of the Century 16 movie complex where the tragedy took place grew visible in the distance, an anguished reminder of the mass shooting that has overwhelmed this blue-collar city of 325,000.
Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper solemnly read the names of the 12 victims aloud as the crowd repeated “we will remember” after each name. As he spoke, red heart-shaped balloons drifted up into the sky from among the sea of people.
Hickenlooper shared the story of a 25-year-old woman named Heather, who was at the midnight premiere of the latest Batman movie, “The Dark Knight Rises,” as part of a 37-member group of employees from national food chain Red Robin.
Shot by all three weapons that alleged shooter James Holmes used in his attack, Hickenlooper related that, when he visited her in the hospital, Heather was proudly displaying a large Batman pillow behind her hospital bed.
Indeed, many attendees wore Batman shirts and Batman hats, some handmade with “7/20/12,” the date of the horrific shooting.
That sprit of defiance was also reflected in the refusal, by everyone from President Barack Obama on down, to utter the name of the alleged killer.
“The pain is still raw,” Aurora Mayor Steve Hogan said. “The healing has yet to begin.”
In the middle of a sea of people spread across the lawn in front of the Aurora Municipal Center, a bright eye-catching burst of pink stood out: two-dozen friends of victim Micayla Medek were clad in bright shades of pink, her favorite color. Hot pink, deep pink, soft pink and off pink.
The popular 23-year-old was working at a local sandwich shop and saving up for a trip to India. She had gone with six other friends to see the movie. They all survived but she was killed.
“Pink is the embodiment of who she was - pure love. She was always happy, and she worked her way into everybody’s heart,” said Henry Miranda, 23, who was sitting with “Cayla” when she was shot. He declined to discuss the horror of that night.
“Today is not about ‘why?’” Miranda said. “It’s about celebrating the love she brought into all of our lives.”
When Micayla Medek’s name was read aloud, some in the pink-clad group of her friends began to weep, linking arms and leaning on one another for support. Their pink balloons soon joined the hearts that were drifting slowly into the clouds.
Many Aurora Police Department officers patrolling the crowd were stopped and hugged by women, their hands shaken heartily by men, who slapped them on the back and communicated a simple message, “Thanks.” Elsewhere spontaneous, muted bursts of applause greeted those in uniform as they passed.
Up on stage, Hickenlooper sought to quantify the anguish in the Aurora community by saying, “it was almost as if God had come down and picked the most vibrant people and took them from us.”
He quoted Austrian Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl: “If there is meaning in life at all, there must be meaning in suffering.”
The crowd came from every corner of the community. Arthur Blessitt and Gregory McDonald, two non-denominational Denver pastors, held a 6 by 12 foot brown wooden cross aloft, their arms entwined around the base of the wood.
“We had to be here,” McDonald said.
A crew of bikers in black leather jackets - one with a tattoo of brass knuckles on his forearm - dropped their heads in prayer beside a small contingent of Muslim Americans from Aurora.
Dr. Ashraf Azeem, a local pediatrician, organized a group of fellow Muslims fasting for Ramadan to join the vigil. They stenciled signs and held them aloft in the middle of the lawn.
“We are part of this community,” Azeem said. “Aurora is our home. This tragedy,” he said, pausing. “We feel like we lost part of our family. It’s our duty to be here.” He said his small group had been “extraordinarily well-received.”
“For the first time, we feel like we are definitely part of this community.” He said he has been living in Aurora for 25 years.
But amidst a deep well of goodwill running through the crowd was the reminder of an ever-present danger in this suburban community. High above the crowd, perched on the roof of the six-story Municipal Center, a Denver Police Department sniper team in forest green uniforms monitored the crowd with binoculars.
(This story has been corrected to fix typo in 14th paragraph)
Editing by Jonathan Weber and Eric Beech